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The Portal Overlook -
My Favorite View Of Town

by Marcia Hafner

The first time I walked up the Portal Overlook Trail, the steady, uphill grind that I encountered on that steep trail felt like the longest one and a half miles I had walked in a long time. Not realizing then that it gained 1000 feet in elevation, it was not the easy, short duration walk I had anticipated. After that introduction, I now know what to expect and the more I walk this trail, the easier it gets. I return to it often because I enjoy the work-out to the overlook with the reward of the breathtaking (mainly because I’m breathing so hard) panoramic view.

After a short pause, I start a full circle with my binoculars beginning in a northerly direction for a distant look at the Bookcliffs on the other side of I-70. To the northeast I gaze at the stunning landmarks of Balanced Rock and the arches in the Windows section of Arches National Park. Across the river cor-ridor, I can faintly see Castle Rock protruding up from a v-shaped dip on the Porcupine Rim. So dominant on the eastern horizon, the impressive La Sal Mountain Range, snow covered most of the year, is an overpowering eye catcher. Then I let my vision drift south and southwest to the Moab Rim and the warped red sandstone contortions of Behind The Rocks that includes a background view of the Abajo Mountains. Finally directly behind me are the towering domes of the Portal formation.

The thing I especially like about the Portal Overlook is the view of town, the Scott M. Matheson Preserve and the wide sweep of the Colorado River which are directly below my observation point. I spend a lot of time picking out familiar landmarks in the preserve and the many of the businesses that line highway 191. I’m also watchful for year-round birds such as ravens, golden eagles and red-tailed hawks that take advantage of the thermals along the rim. Mid-spring through early fall violet-green swallows and the white-throated swifts also follow this aerial route with the speed-demon swifts sometimes whizzing by so close, they give me a buzz.

The flow of the Colorado River is squeezed between the sandstone domes on the north and south side of the river and this feature is referred to as The Portal. This is a well-used trail mainly on slickrock of the Kayenta formation that wraps around the face of The Portal on the north side of the river. During the first part of the trail, the river stays in view. When I get to a spot that I refer to as “The Hump,” I get my first glimpse of town. This is when the river goes out of the bounds of my vision and I can now see the domes above the Portal Overlook. My goal is now within sight and that gives me an extra boost. When I get to the final switchbacks that go from one ledge to another, I know so well that I am almost there.

There is no sign at The Overlook and walking further on this north facing part of the trail can be hazardous. A hiker should tread with caution particularly in winter. Just one little slip, a loss of balance and it’s at least a several hundred foot drop off the edge. This trail continues on to the Poison Spider Mesa and is frequently used by mountain bikers usually going down to make a loop ride from the Poison Spider Trailhead.

Because the trail up to the viewpoint is south facing, snow melts off quickly making it an easy year round walk but in my opinion, it is at its best in the spring. With its southern exposure the rocks retain their heat and that gives the wildflowers an early boost. By the end of February I often savor the first wildflowers of the season; the tiny yellow blooms of the Newbury twinpod.

As the spring season progresses, so do the flowers. Look for the tubular, pinkish-red Eaton’s pentstemon, the yellows of the holly-like Fremont’s mahonia, the elongated yellow stalks of the Prince’s Plume, the pale-pink rockcress, the flaming orange of the globemallow and the purple scorpionweed named for its habit of curling up like the tail of a scorpion. The final hurrah before the scorching summer heat shuts the desert flowers down is in May and early June when the prickly pear cactus puts on a burst of varying shades of yellow. A spring time walk up the Portal Trail is also filled with song as I tune into the trills of the rock wren and the cascading, bubbling cadence of the canyon wren.

The big drawback of a southern exposure is the scarcity of shade in the summer during most of the day and the sizzling heat makes the rocks untouchable. My advice to summertime hikers who want to use this trail is to start very early in the morning or wait until very late in the afternoon.

Going on an outing to the Portal Overlook is not a huge commitment of time. From Moab, it’s just a few minutes drive. The hike can easily be done round trip in two to three hours. So if you are pressed for time and can spare just a morning or afternoon, this trail would be a good choice.

[To get to the Portal Overlook Trail from town, drive north on Main St. (Highway 191). After crossing the Colorado River, take a left turn on to Utah 279 (the Potash Rd.) Go down river for 4.2 miles and park at the Jay Cee Park Recreation Site. The trailhead is here and a sign gives a description of the trail.]



Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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